CEUTA, Spain (AP) — With border crossings of migrants apparently under control, Spain and Morocco turned their attention Thursday to the plight of hundreds of teenagers and children stranded on both sides of their frontier amid one of the biggest diplomatic spats between the two countries in recent years.
The risks facing youths caught in the middle of the rift remained visible even as the flow of migrants that Morocco let cross over into Spain's North Africa enclave of Ceuta appeared to have stopped.
Spanish police recovered the body of a young man from Mediterranean surf near Ceuta's Tarajal beach, the European soil many Moroccans and other Africans tried to reach by swimming around the border that separates the city from Morocco. Another young man was confirmed dead in the water on Monday.
Meanwhile, hundreds of unaccompanied minors were crammed into charity-run warehouses for a 10-day compulsory coronavirus quarantine under police watch. Spain’s Interior Ministry said 850 migrants under 18 years old were left of those who had crossed since Monday.
Looking for some extra clothes to protect himself from the evening cold, a 14-year-old boy who had stayed in the warehouse explained that his parents had agreed to his attempt to start a life in Spain.
“They see that if I come here I can have a future,” said the boy, who had traveled from Tetouan, a city 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) south of the Spanish border. “You see your parents can't work, the education system is very weak. What can I say? I cannot even tell you what people eat."
The Associated Press is not using the boy’s name. It doesn't normally name children without permission from their parents, and the identity of his parents couldn't be obtained.
It appears that other children crossed without their parents' knowledge.
One 18-year-old boy, who had been in Ceuta for a year, said he was called by his parents to help search for his younger brother, who had come over in the recent surge without his parent's consent.
A 15-year-old boy from Fnideq, the town just across the frontier, told the AP that he had crossed on Monday when Moroccan police announced that the border was open.
“The Moroccans told us, go go, pass pass, they let us cross. I was just swimming and I saw people crossing so I went too," he said from inside a holding pen with other youngsters.
“They have us locked as if we were in a prison. Morocco was a prison and Spain is now also a prison.”
The Spanish government has announced that 200 of the young migrants who were already in the city of 85,000 before this week's sudden surge in arrivals would be transferred to the mainland in coming days in order to leave space in government-run facilities in Ceuta. Under Spain's laws, the minors remain under the care of regional authorities until their relatives can be found or they come of age.
Municipal authorities for Ceuta set up a hotline for the parents on the Moroccan side who are missing their children and believe them to be in the Spanish city.
The situation was also chaotic across the border in Fnideq, where people roamed the streets begging for food or money to return to their hometowns after they were expelled from Ceuta or stopped at the border. Moroccan authorities sent buses to pick some people up and take them to Casablanca.
Moroccan security forces clashed well into the night with dozens of mostly young men who had gathered on a boulevard leading to the border with Spain, and were hoping to follow the thousands who in previous days swam around of jumped the border fences.
The scuffles broke out when police tried to break up the groups of people who had gathered and set fire to a barricade blocking the street. The police moved back but later dispersed the group.
Authorities in Ceuta said Thursday that no migrants crossed overnight into the city.
In previous days, the border between Morocco and Ceuta became porous following warnings from the Moroccan government to Spain that it would face consequences over Madrid's decision to provide coronavirus treatment to the head of a militant group fighting for the independence of the Western Sahara region annexed by Rabat.
Brahim Ghali, head of the Polisario Front, flew into Spain in mid-April with an Algerian passport that had a false identity.
In an apparent attempt to move toward mending relations, Spanish security forces said their Moroccan counterparts agreed Thursday to establish a protocol system for the return of the migrants.
Publicly, however, the dispute went on.
“The Spanish media’s hostility towards Morocco, based on fake news, cannot obscure the real origin of the crisis, which is the reception by Madrid under a false identity of the leader of the separatist militias of the Polisario,” Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita told state news agency MAP, in the first public comment on the issue by a leading government official.
Spanish Defense Minister Margarita Robles, for her part, said that the country won't accept being pressured with “the use of minors."
“We are not going to accept being blackmailed,” Robles told Spain's public radio. “Spain's integrity is not negotiable and is not at stake. We are going to use all necessary means to guarantee the territorial integrity and to keep vigilance on our frontiers.”
“You don't play with Spain,” she added.
Spain said that more than 8,000 people crossed into Spanish territory in 48 hours, although at least 6,000 had either been expelled, many in bulk pushbacks criticized by rights groups. Many of those who crossed also returned voluntarily after finding no shelter in Ceuta or possibilities to continue onto the European mainland across the Strait of Gibraltar.
Ayoub, 16, was among those who was sent back after trying three times to cross over. He said he was giving up and taking a bus home to Temara, near Rabat, before he runs out of money.
“I’ll be back when the border reopens,” he said.
Mosa’ab Elshamy reported from Fnideq, Morocco. Tarek Ananou and Bernat Armangué in Ceuta, Aritz Parra in Madrid, and Joseph Wilson in Barcelona, contributed to this report.
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